As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Dissecting The Lizard Brain

Two researchers have run the data on Jimmy Carter's contention that race is playing a role in the anger over health care. It's bookmark-worthy:

Our research favors Carter's interpretation and adds some hard data to the debate. In fact, the partisan divide today is even more troubling than if it was driven by race alone.

Americans' views of political issues and their partisan attachments are being increasingly shaped by gut-level worldviews. On one side of many issues are those who see the world in terms of hierarchy, think about problems in black and white terms, and struggle to tolerate difference. On the other are those who favor independence over hierarchy, shades of gray over black-white distinctions, and diversity over sameness.

We call this dividing line an authoritarian one, and we find that what side of the line people fall on explains their positions on a wide ranging set of issues, including race, immigration, gay rights, civil liberties, and terrorism. This is because what lies behind these preferences is a larger difference in worldview, where people understand reality in starkly different ways. This, in turn, leads to rancorous and irreconcilable-seeming political conflicts.

As evidence of the link between health care and racial attitudes, we analyzed survey data gathered in late 2008. The survey asked people whether they favored a government run health insurance plan, a system like we have now, or something in between. It also asked four questions about how people feel about blacks.

Taken together the four items form a measure of what scholars call racial resentment. We find an extraordinarily strong correlation between racial resentment of blacks and opposition to health care reform.

Among whites with above average racial resentment, only 19 percent favored fundamental health care reforms and 57 percent favored the present system. Among those who have below average racial resentment, more than twice as many (45 percent) favored government run health care and less than half as many (25 percent) favored the status quo.

No such relationship between racial attitudes and opinions on health care existed in the mid-1990s during the Clinton effort.

I would say that in general, opposition to any social insurance program for the less fortunate meets head-on with racial animus. Whether the presumed leader of this policy shift is white or black, a substantial portion of those with racial resentment pictures that leader as delivering their tax dollars to the undeserving other, which can be pictured in their minds as a black family, a Hispanic immigrant family, or really anyone who doesn't share the same features. It's no accident that opposition to Obama is clustered in the South, given such a reading.

What these professors are really probing is the lizard brain, the tribal identifiers that often bubble to the surface, in unguarded moments, as racism. It's almost too neat and simple to simply call it racial in intent. It goes much deeper to a visceral resentment, a put-upon persecution complex, this constant paranoia that someone else is getting a better deal, and that such inequity can form the basis of all the nation's problems. It's purely an emotional release to explain whatever personal failings or lack of compassion already exists. That this frequently codes racially is a symptom of the relationship between race and class, as well as the other longtime signifiers of identity that have been hard-wired into our brains for centuries.

I found this via DougJ last week, and it really summed up a lot of what I think animates modern conservatism, and it's not particularly or singularly racial:

“Those who have known him [Cheney] over the years remain astounded by what they describe as his almost autistic indifference to the thoughts and feelings of others. ‘He has the least interest in human beings of anyone I have ever met,’ says John Perry Barlow, his former supporter. Cheney’s freshman-year roommate, Steve Billings, agrees: ‘If I could ask Dick one question, I’d ask him how he could be so unempathetic.’”

There's an almost studied uncaring. And of course, Randian teaching gave those predisposed to uncaring a way to order their lack of compassion intellectually, to create virtue in selfishness and convince themselves that the less privileged are better off receiving no help from them. This anecdote from Rand (nee Alissa Rosenbaum)'s early life is fascinating and instructive:

Anne C. Heller, in her skillful life of Rand, traces the roots of Rand's philosophy to an even earlier age. (Heller paints a more detailed and engaging portrait of Rand's interior life, while Burns more thoroughly analyzes her ideas.) Around the age of five, Alissa Rosenbaum's mother instructed her to put away some of her toys for a year. She offered up her favorite possessions, thinking of the joy that she would feel when she got them back after a long wait. When the year had passed, she asked her mother for the toys, only to be told she had given them away to an orphanage. Heller remarks that "this may have been Rand's first encounter with injustice masquerading as what she would later acidly call ‘altruism.’ " (The anti-government activist Grover Norquist has told a similar story from childhood, in which his father would steal bites of his ice cream cone, labelling each bite "sales tax" or "income tax." The psychological link between a certain form of childhood deprivation and extreme libertarianism awaits serious study.)

These children grew up to want to maintain that state of retarded adolescence, of a belief only in their own self-interest and greed, and Rand built a philosophy around it so they could justify their inhumanity and relieve the burden of their own consciences. They flipped morality on its head and built statues to the virtuous capitalist, and a drive for permanent growth that benefits only himself which is seen in this inverted pyramid as a glory to all mankind. In short, they have no compassion because they are told they have no need for it. It is a philosophy that served masters. And if taken to extremes, it can become profoundly sociopathic, as the desires of the individual trump social norms or conventions.

Is that racial in nature? It's certainly an argument that benefits the super-wealthy by relieving their guilt, makes it moral to hoard wealth and provides an element of superiority for anyone in the ruling class. That's definitely tribal. And class and race have become profoundly mixed in this culture. The teabaggers eat up Randian thought because they can easily justify their selfishness and identify a group with which they can hold some level of superiority. There's a comfort in a common enemy, in a tribal clustering against the other, armed with a philosophy that you can wield as armor to protect yourself from feeling any human emotion about that other's suffering. They may be the dreaded "populists" who Rand and her ilk would bar the door to the mansion to keep out in the rain; but they can internalize both halves of this at once, especially when they share the same enemies.

These thoughts have taken decades if not hundreds of years to wind through the American lizard brain. It will take perhaps as much time to wind them out. If race is what makes wingers uncomfortable with their own beliefs, then perhaps that's the proper line of attack. But it's much deeper than that.

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